The good thing about mp3 blogs in the post-mp3 blogging world of social networking is that we’re righteously relieved of having to comment on every fart and gurgle in the microcosmos. In the old days, blogs ran rings around the traditional media outlets, who struggled to adapt to this new mediascape, where the briefest sea changes in scene culture would be disseminated, deconstructed, and dismissed months ahead of acknowledgement in even the coolest end of the music press – but these days it’s futile to try and out-run the ‘have you heard?’-hungry Twittermachine, This Is My Jam, and Tumblr. Instead, we can kick back, have a long, good think, and actually blog whatever the hell we like without worrying about being ahead of the hunting pack.
So, I’m sorry, but this blog is not about David Bowie.
It’s great that he isn’t dead and all, and that new song certainly isn’t terrible, it’s just hard for me to get excited about that nice old dude when thanks to the perpetual NOW generated by web 3.0 where we’ve lost all sense of history, it basically means that as well as Bowie being not dead – and indeed, never will be dead – it means that fucken CLIFF BURTON is still alive. He’s there, I can see him, inside my computer. He’s in our heads.
Over New Year I finally managed to track down Cliff ‘Em All, the 1987 collection of scrappy home videos Metallica released in tribute to their recently-slain bassist. It was out of print when I was a Metallica fan the first time around, but can be viewed by anybody now on YouTube.
I was obsessed with Cliff Burton as a youngster. Even by the period of the (very) guilty pleasure that is the Metallica album (or “the black album”) when I first became aware of thrash’s reigning royalty, Burton had acquired a semi-mythical status.
He played bass on Metallica’s classic first three LPs – Kill ‘Em All, Ride The Lightning, and Master of Puppets – records they would never again come close to equalling, but more than that, Cliff seemed to represent a spirit of the young group that fans mourned as Lars and James got older, richer, and, well, cuntier.
Burton was not a typical thrasher. He was a mellow San Franciscan stoner, who stood out against the nuclear war-obsessed BC Rich shredders in his bell-bottom flares, thunking away on a huge Rickenbacker bass (a Rickenbacker! Totally not pointy!) with his fingers (his fingers! Like a jazzer!!). In a genre which is almost solely about guitars, where bass is entombed at sub-audible levels in the mix (check …And Justice For All for proof), Cliff was weird, burbling funk underneath the straight vectors and sheet metal of Hetfield and Hammett/Mustaine’s riffing. Yes! God, it was FUNKY. It really was.
He died in 1986 when the band’s tour bus hit a patch of black ice, skidding on its side. Cliff was sleeping next to the window and was thrown underneath the bus and crushed. Eerily, moments earlier he’d swapped his bunk with Ulrich’s.
After Cliff’s death, there was little evidence in Metallica of the gang of fun-loving drunks that are blearily raging their way through Cliff ‘Em All almost like they didn’t actually realise yet that they were already one of the greatest groups in the world. Instead they came back with a new bass player, a management-styled black-clad image, a shrewd business sense, and a slightly dead look in the eyes.
Burton was hired by Ulrich and Hetfield after they saw the guitarist in the San Franciscan metal band Trauma do a shredding, psychedelic mid-set solo slot that blew their minds. And then they realised the guitar only had four strings… and was a bass. That always semi-improvised bass solo later became known as Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth) and is the most ass-kicking moment on Kill ‘Em All, a record consisting of exactly 3075 ass-kicking moments.
Here he is, with a teenage Dane clattering away enthusiastically on drums behind him:
When I first heard Lightning Bolt I was simultaneously overjoyed that somebody had basically made Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth) into a band, and also a little disappointed. If Cliff Burton were still alive, what awesome musics would he be making in a world where Lightning Bolts exist?
Here’s the main track from Lightning Bolt’s 1999 cassette debut:
Whether Lightning Bolt had intended to sound like Burton + Ulrich x 1000, who knows. Certainly avant-rock’s other great duo of this time had been taking notes, though. On Sunn O)))’s 2002 album Flight of The Behemoth was this monster:
Not many clocked initially that this was in fact a diplodocus-paced cover of Metallica’s For Whom The Bell Tolls – a song featuring a prominent Burton bass groove. At some points in Sunn’s recording, you can almost hear the ghost of Anesthesia lashing around inside those slow, world-turning guitars, trying to break out, through, back.
At Cliff’s funeral, the beautiful bass harmony section of Orion – the Master of Puppets instrumental – was played. It’s still a mesmerising piece of music.
Yeah, I know. David Bowie isn’t dead and Cliff Burton is, and it isn’t even an anniversary or anything.
I just had to tell someone.